lego, power, open projects

Kids in a school start building Legotown. Eventually, powerful Legotown figures emerge, and inequalities surface. Some kids are excluded from Legotown, some control the enterprise, some struggle against each other; trading markets develop for various pieces. Teachers get nervous. Eventually, Legotown gets destroyed by external forces, and teachers ponder what they’ve wrought, and start a number of “experiments” to see how the kids react to changing rules.

Why We Banned Legos: Exploring power, ownership, and equity in an early childhood classroom, by Ann Pelo and Kendra Pelojoaquin. A wonderful and thought-provoking essay/report.

[I should note that I am glad I was not in this class as a kid, with these somehow-creepy-social-engineering teachers]

All of it applies somehow to the “open” world of the web, in some ways I have not quite figured out yet. Here are some choice paras:

The nature of power:

During the boom days of Legotown, we’d suggested to the key Lego players that there was an unequal distribution of power giving rise to conflict and tension. Our suggestions were met with deep resistance. Children denied any explicit or unfair power, making comments like “Some-body’s got to be in charge or there would be chaos,” and “The little kids ask me because I’m good at Legos.” They viewed their power as passive leadership, benignly granted, arising from mastery and long experience with Legos, as well as from their social status in the group.

What does power look like?:

We began by inviting the children to draw pictures of power, knowing that when children represent an idea in a range of “languages” or art media, their understandings deepen and expand. “Think about power,” said Kendra. “What do you think ‘power’ means? What does power look like? Take a few minutes to make a drawing that shows what power is.”

As children finished their drawings, we gathered for a meeting to look at the drawings together. The drawings represented a range of understandings of power: a tornado, love spilling over as hearts, forceful and fierce individuals, exclusion, cartoon superheroes, political power.

On being powerless (in one of the post-Legotown trading games):

When the teaching staff met to reflect on the Lego trading game, we were struck by the ways the children had come face-to-face with the frustration, anger, and hopelessness that come with being on the outside of power and privilege. During the trading game, a couple of children simply gave up, while others waited passively for someone to give them valuable pieces. Drew said, “I stopped trading because the same people were winning. I just gave up.” In the game, the children could experience what they’d not been able to acknowledge in Legotown: When people are shut out of participation in the power structure, they are disenfranchised — and angry, discouraged, and hurt.

On system unfairness vs. individual unfairness:

To make sense of the sting of this disenfranchisement, most of the children cast Liam and Kyla as “mean,” trying to “make people feel bad.” They were unable or unwilling to see that the rules of the game — which mirrored the rules of our capitalist meritocracy — were a setup for winning and losing. Playing by the rules led to a few folks winning big and most folks falling further and further behind. The game created a classic case of cognitive disequilibrium: Either the system is skewed and unfair, or the winners played unfairly. To resolve this by deciding that the system is unfair would call everything into question; young children are committed to rules and rule-making as a way to organize a community, and it is wildly unsettling to acknowledge that rules can have built-in inequities. So most of the children resolved their disequilibrium by clinging to the belief that the winners were ruthless — despite clear evidence of Liam and Kyla’s compassionate generosity.

On ownership (which, by the way, illustrates the radical and difficult departure that projects like LibriVox force us to confront, and why public domain – renouncing ownership – is so much more radical than creative commons – which just defines new rules of ownership):

In their reflections, the children articulated several shared theories about how ownership is conferred.

* If I buy it, I own it:

Sophia: “She owns the lavender balls because she makes them, but if I buy it, then it’s mine.”

* If I receive it as a gift, I own it:

Marlowe: “My mom bought this book for me because she thought it would be a good reading book for me. I know I own it because my mom bought it and she’s my mom and she gave it to me.”

* If I make it myself, I own it:

Sophie: “I sewed this pillow myself with things that my teacher gave me, like stuffing and fabric. I sewed it and it turned into my pillow because it’s something I made instead of something I got at the store.”

* If it has my name on it, I own it:

Alex: “My teacher made this pillow for me and it has my name on it.”

Kendra: “If I put my name on it, would I own it?”

Alex: “Well, Miss S. made it for me… but if your name was on it, then you would own it.”

Sophie: “Kendra, don’t put your name on it, OK?”

* If I own it, I make the rules about it:

Alejandro: “I own this computer, because my grandpa gave it to me. I lend it to my friends so that they can play with it. But I make the rules about it.”

Teachers impose the Bolshevik Revolution, to build New Legotown:

We invited the children to work in small, collaborative teams to build Pike Place Market with Legos. We set up this work to emphasize negotiated decision-making, collaboration, and collectivity. We wanted the children to practice the big ideas we’d been exploring. We wanted Lego Pike Place Market to be an experience of group effort and shared ownership: If Legotown was an embodiment of individualism, Lego Pike Place Market would be an experiment in collectivity and consensus.

Kids start sounding like zombie-versions of Newt Gingrich’s worst nightmare:

From our conversations, several themes emerged.

* Collectivity is a good thing:

“You get to build and you have a lot of fun and people get to build onto your structure with you, and it doesn’t have to be the same way as when you left it…. A house is good because it is a community house.”

* Personal expression matters:

“It’s important that the little Lego plastic person has some identity. Lego houses might be all the same except for the people. A kid should have their own Lego character to live in the house so it makes the house different.”

* Shared power is a valued goal:

“It’s important to have the same amount of power as other people over your building. And it’s important to have the same priorities.”

“Before, it was the older kids who had the power because they used Legos most. Little kids have more rights now than they used to and older kids have half the rights.”

* Moderation and equal access to resources are things to strive for:

“We should have equal houses. They should be standard sizes…. We should all just have the same number of pieces, like 15 or 28 pieces.”

Teachers get excited by the raw clay of Hobbesian childhood they have molded, through idealism and power structure management, into paragons of Rawlsian enlightenment:

As teachers, we were excited by these comments. The children gave voice to the value that collectivity is a solid, energizing way to organize a community — and that it requires power-sharing, equal access to resources, and trust in the other participants.

Paradise, built and achieved:

From this framework, the children made a number of specific proposals for rules about Legos, engaged in some collegial debate about those proposals, and worked through their differing suggestions until they reached consensus about three core agreements:

*All structures are public structures. Everyone can use all the Lego structures. But only the builder or people who have her or his permission are allowed to change a structure.
*Lego people can be saved only by a “team” of kids, not by individuals.
*All structures will be standard sizes.

With these three agreements — which distilled months of social justice exploration into a few simple tenets of community use of resources — we returned the Legos to their place of honor in the classroom.

A fascinating story, and one I need to think about more. It’s very relevant to life in places like LibriVox, I think, and I’m not sure why I am reacting with at least some negative cynicism. Maybe because one power-structures not examined is the relationship between kids and teachers? Maybe because the kids didn’t choose to participate in this experiment? Anyway, why do I not celebrate this experience, which mirrors in some ways the collectivist-do-goodness that underlies a project like LibriVox? To ponder more.

Hmm, maybe I am just having a bad day? Any thoughts on this from yon readers?

[this comes via mike migurski]

national post on copyright

This looks like a tide-turning event: National Post’s editorial on copyright reads:

For Canada to introduce DMCA-style legislation now would do nothing but encourage nuisance lawsuits. There is nothing wrong with tough rules against copyright infringement, but criminalizing behaviour that might facilitate copyright infringement only incidentally is the wrong approach. If that road had been taken when household videotape machines came onto the market – and the movie industry tried very hard in the courts to steer the law in that direction – no one would be allowed to own a VCR.

There’s more…

[via: Michael Geist]

Categories: openmovement

open movement?

I’m supposed to be doing a radio piece for Nora Young’s CBC show, spark. I’m supposed to come up with a sort of mission statement for the piece, maybe you can help.

it’s a problem because I have been struggling with just that since I started getting interested in it a couple of years ago. so, dear internet, what is the thread that ties these together?:
-mass collaboration (open source method)
-giving stuff away (commons, gpl, public domain)
-free access to information (universal access to all human knowledge)

wikipedia, free software, open source, universal access to all human knowledge, the commons… these are all strands of something that’s not quite unified, but comes from the same impulse … so what is that? I call it the “open movement” but that’s not quite right. the free and open movement is clunky, and still not right.

[note, i’ve been thinking more and more about the negatives that come with this. each step of “liberation” in parts of human society, is usually accompanied by restrictions elsewhere. what are the implications for freeing information and enabling mass collaboration?]

how about: what happens when the network frees information and allows us all to collaborate together? how will this change the way the world looks?

ach. just writing to spur some thoughts. anyone have some thoughts for me?

Categories: data, openmovement


DBpedia is a community effort to extract structured information from Wikipedia and to make this information available on the Web. DBpedia allows you to ask sophisticated queries against Wikipedia and to link other datasets on the Web to Wikipedia data.

hacking the noosphere

I had dinner with one of my favourite web writers last week, Jon Udell (along with a collection of other Montreal datahounds and web citizens). I like Jon’s stuff because he writes not about exploring the outer edge of the snowplow; but rather taking things from the snowplow blade and figuring out how they might make our lives and societies better. I think so much in the world of tech is about making the technology better, and we don’t spend nearly enough time wondering about the impacts or how we can really use these things to imporve lives. He gave a talk, while in Montreal, that I missed, but luckily he put the whole thing up on the web.

Coincidently, Jon’s talk starts with reference to Teilhard de Chardin, who I have been (re)reading about in Annie Dillard’s extraordinary book, For the Time Being (seems to be unavailable in Canada).

In any case, here’s an interesting anecdote from Doug Engelbart, that forms the centre of Jon’s great talk:

On that day, as a young engineer, [Doug Engelbart] suddenly stopped what he was doing and asked himself: Why am I doing this? What is the purpose of this technology that fascinates and compels me?

After wandering around in a kind of revelatory trance for a couple of hours, the answer came to him. He realized that, as a species and a civilization, we were facing serious challenges to our survival.

Now that was sixty years ago, during an era of post World War II optimism, when the limits we’re facing today weren’t so apparent to most people.

Those limits are a lot more evident nowadays, and our political and economic systems are poorly adapted to deal with them. We need to reengineer those systems, in dramatic ways.

To do that, we’ll need to mobilize the collective intelligence necessary to figure out what needs to be done, and the collective will necessary to accomplish it.

So, how do we do that?

Engelbart’s vision is crystal clear. It’s a vision of human augmentation. We need to augment human capability in certain ways. In particular, we need to create — and project our minds into — a shared information space that works like a planetary associative memory.

And we need to populate that shared space with tools that support and amplify and extend our natural ability to analyze, visualize, simulate, decide, and act.

Fifteen years ago that would have sounded nearly as fantastic as Teilhard de Chardin’s noosphere. Today, if we look sideways at the web and squint, we can see the picture coming into focus.

But as William Gibson famously said, the future is unevenly distributed. In this case, what mostly isn’t here is the part where we come together in shared online spaces, with shared tools and information, to analyze, visualize, simulate, decide, and act — on a planetary scale.

The good news is that we can hack this problem. I absolutely believe that we can. But we’re going to have to hack it at a different level than the one at which the computer and information sciences have historically tended to operate.


Unfortunately we do have a tendency to hack the wrong things. I guess because we tend to think first, and best, about the protocols that enable machines and applications and services to work together, instead of about the protocols that enable people to work together — in a context that is defined, but only partly defined, by machines and applications and services.

Ultimately, the right hacks are the ones that help people make sense of their world, and collectively improve it. And the right level is the level of human cognition, attention, intention, and desire.

And (heh) I just finished reading Jon’s talk, and lo, there was a nice reference to LibriVox and me …

Another example, one that happens to be Montreal-based, is LibriVox, the collaborative project to make audio recordings of public domain books. For quite a while the whole project ran on nothing fancier than an online bulletin board. A lot of us here, me included, would have been tempted to write a soup-to-nuts database-backed application to support that project, because that’s what we’re good at, and that’s what we like to do.

But when I saw how the project really works, I realized that would have been a mistake. Like Wikipedia, LibriVox is actually powered by a set of agreements and protocols and traditions. You can imagine encoding those in software, and the project’s founder — Hugh McGuire — might have wanted to, if he’d had access to the right kind of software talent. But he didn’t, which was almost certainly a good thing. Because the agreements and protocols and traditions weren’t known ahead of time, they had to emerge from the collective. As it turned out, a bulletin board — with its weak structure and loose coupling — was exactly the right way to nurture that emergence.

Over time, those loose structures have begun to coalesce. There’s a database behind LibriVox now, but the project still doesn’t feel like a database application, it’s more like a bulletin board that’s been enhanced with some database features. The real innovation continues to be in the agreements and protocols and traditions that attract, reward, and sustain contributors. LibriVox is a success not because of any particular bit of technical hackery, but because of Hugh McGuire’s inspired social hackery.

Which requires a couple of notes, LibriVox is not really Montreal-based … it lives independently on the web, and almost it’s only Montrealness is me, and the odd chapter read by other Montrealers. Also, while I may have had some inspired social hackery, there sure were a lot of people who were just as inspired.

Have a read of the whole thing here.

Categories: openmovement

from major to minor chords

From the economist:

IN 2006 EMI, the world’s fourth-biggest recorded-music company, invited some teenagers into its headquarters in London to talk to its top managers about their listening habits. At the end of the session the EMI bosses thanked them for their comments and told them to help themselves to a big pile of CDs sitting on a table. But none of the teens took any of the CDs, even though they were free. “That was the moment we realised the game was completely up,” says a person who was there.

wikia search

Jimmy Wales got hammered by Arrington for the launch of Wikia Search.

Jimmy Wales comments on the techcrunch thread, with a salient point:

When I launched Wikipedia, I wrote at the top of the first page “Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia”. On that day, anyone reviewing it would have laughed. What’s this? There’s nothing here! This is not an encyclopedia, it is an empty website with some funny editing syntax!

Aka: To build a community-driven tool, you have to have a platform to build. They’ve released the platform, and don’t really have the tool yet. Here’s what the about page says:

Wikia is working to develop and popularize a freely licensed (open source) search engine. What you see here is our first alpha release.

We are aware that the quality of the search results is low..

Wikia’s search engine concept is that of trusted user feedback from a community of users acting together in an open, transparent, public way. Of course, before we start, we have no user feedback data. So the results are pretty bad. But we expect them to improve rapidly in coming weeks, so please bookmark the site and return often.

Whether it’ll work or not, I don’t know, but google needs a good competitor. Though I think wikia’s really competing against and stumbleupon… so we’ll see how it goes.

Also, pls: openid. Just gives me less of a headache. I don’t want to register for another site.

how much to know you’re poor?

Tracey posted this over at …:

There is an excellent article in the Toronto Star about why we have little understanding about the social demographic situation in Canada! Bref! No one can afford the research! In the article Truth carries a painful user fee; Carol Goar tells it like it is right now in Canada when it comes to access to our public data:

The United Way of Greater Toronto had to pay the agency $28,000 for government data showing that family poverty deepened in Toronto between 2000 and 2005, while low-income households made modest gains everywhere else.

It had to spend its donors’ money to prove that Toronto has the lowest median income of any major urban centre in the country.

It had to dip into its charitable givings to marshal evidence – already collected at taxpayers’ expense – that a one-size-fits-all poverty strategy won’t work for Toronto.


BarCamp Montréal, édition #3

Société des Arts Technologiques, 1195 blvd St. Laurent, Montréal.

Samedi, 3 novembre 2007, de 9h00 à 18h00.

C’est quoi ça?
C’est expliqué ici. Mais en gros, voici le résumé:

Un BarCamp, c’est un rassemblement ad-hoc né du désir de permettre à des personnes de partager et apprendre dans un environnement ouvert. C’est un évènement intense comportant des discussions, des démonstrations et des interactions riches entre les participants.

[thanks for the copy, martine]

Categories: art, books, openmovement

booker prized, free online?

From the Telegraph:

All the novels shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize could be made available online in a radical move being considered by publishers, it was reported today…

Negotiations are said to be in progress with the British Council to digitise the six shortlisted novels so they can be downloaded in full, all over the world.

It is hoped the initiative will capture new audiences – particularly in Asia and Africa – who may be unable to access the actual books….

Those behind the venture hope it will boost, rather than detract from sales of the hard copy as readers who download the novel online, may be inspired to buy a paper version for themselves.

More than 10,000 publishers have already signed up to Google’s book-scanning project, which makes part of selected books available online. Initial results from the programme have suggested that publishing the tasters has increased sales of the books.

Note: emphasis added.
-does that mean online for free?
-hey, googlebooks (maybe) proves the point that giving it away might sell more (will be nice to have more than doctorow’s anecdotal evidence)
-I was just saying the other night that the open movement is not/will not be successful for any moral reasons, but because it will be better at doing certain things.

(vie michael geist)